Missing Talent – A Personal Response

In The Confident Teacher by Alex Quigley4 Comments

Sometimes an educational news story comes along that lingers in the mind far longer than the usual chip-paper headline. One such story, earlier this month, was triggered for me when The Sutton Trust released some research labelled ‘Missing Talent‘, about our youngsters who perform well at KS2, but don’t convert that into success in their GCSEs and beyond.The evidence was widely shared in the press, such as here, here and here. The plight of ‘poor but bright’ boys seized many of the headlines. Though undoubtedly a narrowing of the story, the focus on boys from working class backgrounds struck a deeply personal chord with me.

The numbers are large and the story is depressingly familiar.

When I read reports, like the Sutton Trust ‘Missing Talent’ Research Brief, conducted by Becky Allen, from the Education Datalab, it is another stark reminder of the issues that beset too many of our students and inhibit them from fulfilling their potential despite our best efforts as teachers.

The ‘Missing Talent’ report made the following key findings:


I doubt many of these findings come as a surprise to teachers, or anybody else living in modern Britain. The state of affairs that sees Eton boys filling the cabinet and the stark evidence that private school students are 55 times more likely to end up at Oxbridge than their FSM peers, reveals the clear social differences that beset our education system and our society.

My entire school experience, and more, was framed by my persona knowledge that my father always wanted to follow school with going to Art school, but that his father ensured that he got a job and contributed to the family earnings. Such ambition thwarted is the epitome of ‘missing talent’. Not uncommon, the limitations on working class aspiration was the accepted norm decades ago. Skip forward to my generation, to my schooling in an inner-city Liverpool all-boys comprehensive, and though the limitations were less overt, they were still tangible and implicit in our lives. A pitifully small number of my friends gained access to university and the related world of professional careers.

Some of the issues are intractable and beyond the control of teachers, school leaders  and policy makers. A subtle problem is the peer culture that hardens around such ‘missing talent’ from working class communities. Appearing academic can feel like a betrayal of your friends, your roots and even your family. When you fragile teen identity is fastened so tightly to the appearance of being ‘cool’ and rejecting authority, then seeking to leave your friends and pursue university can elicit guilt and fear and more. Going against the tide of almost all your peers takes no little courage and a fistful of support factors. Making such access ‘normal’ is essential; building networks of ‘normal’ roles models is crucial too.

Better teaching and a high quality education system will no doubt help, but many more deep-seated social issues lie at the root of the problem. Outside of teaching and schooling we can ask the question: does money matter? It mattered for my father and for many it matters deeply still. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation have asked the exact same question – see here. Here are some key points from their research:

  • Children in lower-income families have worse cognitive, social-behavioural and health outcomes in part because they are poorer, not just because low income is correlated with other household and parental characteristics.
  • The evidence was strongest for cognitive development and school achievement, followed by social- behavioural development. Income also affects outcomes indirectly impacting on children, including maternal mental health, parenting and home environment.
  • The impact of increases in income on cognitive development appears roughly comparable with that of spending similar amounts on school or early education programmes. Increasing household income could substantially reduce differences in schooling outcomes, while also improving wider aspects of children’s well-being.
  • A given sum of money makes significantly more difference to children in low-income than better- off households (but still helps better-off children).
  • Money in early childhood makes most difference to cognitive outcomes, while in later childhood and adolescence it makes more difference to social and behavioural outcomes.

Unsurprisingly, money does matter.

What does this tell us? Well, we should never stop aiming to improve the quality of our schools and the quality of our teaching – that is something that we have a the capacity to control to a significant degree – however, we should not perpetuate a lie that improving schooling alone will compensate for the impact of social inequality. Cuts to the fabric of our social system will no doubt impact educational outcomes. The UK seems happy to accept the austerity narrative, but we should not stand by to see inequality grow still further. We need to be tremendously vigilant about every swing of the knife.

When I hear about the potential cut to the ‘University Maintenance Grant‘ – see the BBC story here – I get deeply angry. I think about individual stories of students at the margin of being able to enter higher education – like this story related by my Headteacher, John Tomsett, about a girl called Cat, who is crowd-funding to help her into Higher ed. – see the story here. Yes – it is recounted regularly that the increase of fees hasn’t deterred poorer students from entering university, but we will reach a critical point where is dissuades more and that it implictly discourages the vast missing talent that is already in existence to contemplate changing their lot and accessing higher education.

Plainly, there is too much missing talent already.

Schools will always struggle to provide working class students, male or female, with the professional and educational networks that are the privilege of those children in better off families. Teachers and school leaders cannot right the inequality that sees the ‘Social Mobility and Poverty Commission’ report on research showing ‘working-class applicants struggle to get access to top jobs in the UK’, but we can and should challenge such inequality every chance we get. We should make our voices heard loudly when we see policy perpetuate inequity. At the same time we can concentrate on great teaching, a powerful curriculum and shining a light on the talent in our schools before it gets lost.



  1. I remember friends leaving my secondary school in 1986 at the end of O levels who were far brighter academically than me but whose families wanted them to get jobs. Their parents said to them that if they could get a job now then they should grab it rather than risk delaying and continuing their education in case there were no jobs when they finally finished. It wasn’t low aspirations exactly but, I think, a fear of unemployment and a desire for their children to have good jobs and financial security. I’m sure that some families now will be cautious about encouraging their children to go to university, when it will mean taking on enormous debt, for the same reasons.

    My Mum only told me recently that she passed the 11 plus but her parents wouldn’t allow her to go to the grammar school because they didn’t like the uniform. Maybe they couldn’t afford to buy the uniform or maybe they just felt as if people like them didn’t belong in clothes like that but either way my Mum went to the secondary modern and then left to get a job and although she tried to do A levels at night school it was too difficult alongside working.

    I’m sure lots of other people have similar stories from working class backgrounds.

    1. Author

      Yes- the stories sound familiar to me. The little social anxieties, like having a different uniform, strike at a deeper well of feeling an ‘otherness’ I think.

  2. It sounds hopeless I know, but who can prevent the limiting nature of local ambition? Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens all could see and write about it. Whilst we can rail against the machine, we are indivisibly connected to that small thing I might call the imagination of our family. To be brave and play the Dick Whittington is the way forward for all of us. What I fear has magnified the problem is the petty ambition of teachers for children to achieve the miniscule grade by grade improvement that national strategies have encouraged us to believe is the exemplification of progress. People need to plan to be mobile; I reckon the ‘mobility’ of grammar school graduates had more to do with national service and a country in flux as the 50s and 60s were, rather than the passing of exams and getting to Oxbridge. My Nan, divorced her husband at the end of the war (during which she ran a tobacconist on the Finchley Road) became a PA for someone high up in ShellMex, being able to type and spell being a major advantage, and then travelled the world for 3 months of each year.
    Her daughter, my mum, helped run the tobacconist, then after said war went to Kinds College to read English, where she met my dad, and the two of them decided to stop being PAYE and go entrepreneurial and set up my school, 19 children in a house in Maidenhead, a home they shared with their school and family.
    I don’t think money matters as much as people think – loosing people’s anchors, getting them not just to think outside of the box but beyond their imaginations is the role of us educators. My greatest success stories from former pupils seem to rise from the relentless optimism that we engender. I do this significantly on purpose now, because the alternative for man and boy is to show them what they can’t do. Which is an utterly shit way of motivating the soul.

    1. Author

      Thanks for the reply James. The family is no doubt essential. We cannot engineer equity solely by policy that is for sure. I also agree that it isn’t all about money: genes, role model parents, the chance of reading richly, and so many more factors can have a significant impact. Still, we can make a more coherent systematic approach. The Sutton Trust clearly have an ethos that aims at such. Schools, families, charities, business owners and policy makers all play a role – all have a stake.

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